Some details of her life are not certain, but it is generally believed that she was given the childhood name Chiyono, and her father was Adachi Yasumori (1231–1285), a samurai warrior of the mid-Kamakura period. She married and had a child (a daughter) at a young age, as was expected for warrior-class Japanese women at the time; she certainly married into the Kanezawa Hōjō clan, which then governed Echigo, but there is some dispute as to whether her husband was Hōjō Sanetoki or Hōjō Akitoki. She was highly educated in both Japanese and Chinese.
Successor to Wu-hsueh Tsu-yuan
Nyodai received the teachings of Rinzai master Wu-hsüeh Tsu-yuan (Mugaku Sōgen) shortly before his death in 1286. At this time he conferred upon her the character "mu", meaning nothingness, from his own name, and designated Nyodai as his successor. Despite resistance by the monks, Nyodai eventually founded and served as abbess of the Keiaiji Temple and its subtemples in Northern Kyoto. The Keiaiji Temple was the head temple complex of the Five Mountain Rinzai Zen Convent Association. Nyodai was the first woman to successfully propagate Rinzai Zen teachings.
Poem of enlightenment
A poem Nyodai wrote about her enlightenment (which occurred when a water pail broke) has become one of the better known writings of its type; an English translation by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki (from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones) reads as follows:
|“||In this way and that I tried to save the old pail/
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break/
Nyodai was also active in calligraphy, and her calligraphy was prized second only to Taira-no-Masako, a matriarch of the Kamakura shogunate.
As was customary for all monastic leaders at the time, a portrait statue was made of Nyodai with shaved head and monk's robes. This statue was carved toward the end of her life, around 1298; it is now enshrined in Hojiin convent in Kyoto.
1998 memorial ceremony
In 1998 Buddhist nuns from Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and Tokyo visited the United States for the first time, in order to conduct a rare Buddhist ceremony in St. Paul's Chapel in New York City in memory of Mugai Nyodai, as it was the 700th anniversary of her death. The nuns conducted Buddhist rituals never before seen outside Japan, and never viewed by the general public, even in Japan. The nuns' rituals included a rare performance of the scattering of paper lotus petals in a circumambulation to gagaku music, led by Abbess Shozui Rokujo of Domyoji Convent. Chief Abbot Keido Fukushima of Tōfuku-ji monastery performed a special incense burning and poetic invocation.
There was also the world premiere of "Mind in Mirror: Nyodai's Dream", composed by Yuriko Hase Kojima for shakuhachi, pipa, and bass koto, and an offering of songs composed by the medieval German Catholic nun, Hildegard von Bingen, performed by members of Columbia University's Collegium Musicum. Dr. Peter Haskel (First Zen Institute of America) chanted The Heart Sutra, and words and poetry were offered by Prof. Barbara Ruch (Institute for Medieval Japanese Studies Director); Dr. George Rupp (Columbia University President); Ambassador Seiichiro Otsuka (Consul General of Japan in New York); Rev. T. Kenjitsu Nakagaki (Buddhist Council of New York); The Very Rev. James Parks Morton (Interfaith Center of New York); and High Priest Shunsho Manabe (Kanazawa Bunko).
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